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Sir Barnes Wallis
Born Barnes Neville Wallis
26 September 1887(1887-09-26)
Ripley, Derbyshire, England
Died 30 October 1979 (aged 92)
Effingham, Surrey, England
Resting place St Lawrence's Church, Effingham, Surrey
Residence Effingham, Surrey
Nationality British
Occupation Scientist, engineer and inventor
Known for Inventing the bouncing bomb

Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, CBE [1] FRS, RDI, FRAeS (26 September 1887 – 30 October 1979), was an English scientist, engineer and inventor. He is best known for inventing the bouncing bomb used by the RAF in Operation Chastise (the "Dambusters" raid) to attack the dams of the Ruhr Valley during World War II. The raid was the subject of the 1954 film The Dam Busters, in which Wallis was played by Michael Redgrave. Among his other inventions were the geodesic airframe and the earth quake bomb.



Barnes Wallis was born in Ripley, Derbyshire and educated at Christ's Hospital in Horsham, leaving school at seventeen to start work in January 1905 at Thames Engineering Works at Blackheath, southeast London. He subsequently changed his apprenticeship to J. Samuel White's, the shipbuilders based at Cowes in the Isle of Wight. He originally trained as a marine engineer and only much later in 1922 did he take an external degree in engineering via the University of London External Programme.[2] He left J. Samuel White's in 1913 when an opportunity arose for him to work on airship design and then aircraft design. He worked for Vickers until his retirement in 1971.


Aircraft design

R100 airship
RCAF Wellington bomber, having flown back to England despite a direct anti-aircraft hit, exposing the geodesic airframe construction.

His many achievements include the first use of geodesic design in engineering and in the gasbag wiring of Vickers's R100 in 1930, which, at the time, was the largest airship ever designed. He also pioneered the use of light alloy and production engineering in the structural design of the R100. Despite a better-than-expected performance and a successful return flight to Canada in 1930, the R100 was broken up following the tragedy that befell its "sister" ship, the R101 (which was designed and built by a team from the Government's Air Ministry); the later crash of the Hindenburg led to the abandonment of airships as a mode of mass transport.

By the time of the R101 crash, Wallis had moved to Vickers' aircraft division. The pre-war aircraft designs of Rex Pierson, the Vickers Wellesley and the Vickers Wellington, both employed Wallis's geodetic design in the fuselage and wing structures. The latter was one of the most robust airframes ever developed, and pictures of its skeleton largely shot away, but still sound enough to bring its crew home safely, are still impressive. The geodesic construction offered a light and strong airframe (compared to conventional designs) with clearly defined space within for fuel tanks, payload etc. However the technique was not easily transferred to other aircraft manufacturers nor was Vickers able to build other designs in factories tooled for geodesic work.

Bomb design

After the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in 1939, Wallis saw a need for strategic bombing to destroy the enemy's ability to wage war and he wrote a paper entitled "A Note on a Method of Attacking the Axis Powers". Referring to the enemy's power supplies he wrote (as Axiom 3): "If their destruction or paralysis can be accomplished they offer a means of rendering the enemy utterly incapable of continuing to prosecute the war". As a means to do this he proposed huge bombs that could concentrate their force and destroy targets which were otherwise unlikely to be affected. Wallis's first super-large bomb design came out at some ten tonnes, far larger than any current plane could carry. This led him to suggest a plane that could carry it, the "Victory Bomber", rather than drop the idea.

Early in 1942, Wallis began experimenting with skipping marbles over water tanks in his garden, leading to his April 1942 paper "Spherical Bomb — Surface Torpedo". The idea was that a bomb could skip over the surface of water (avoiding torpedo nets) and sink directly next to a battleship or dam wall as a depth charge, with the surrounding water concentrating the force of the explosion on the target. A crucial innovation was the addition of backspin, which caused the bomb to trail behind the dropping aircraft, increased the range of the bomb, and also prevented it from moving away from the target wall as it sank. After some initial scepticism, the Air Force accepted Wallis's bouncing bomb for attacks on the Möhne, Eder, and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr area. The raid on these dams in May 1943 (Operation Chastise) was immortalised in Paul Brickhill's 1951 book The Dam Busters and the 1954 film of the same name.

Valentin U-boat pen, with its roof of 4.5 metres of reinforced concrete penetrated by a Grand Slam bomb

After the success of the bouncing bomb, Wallis was able to return to his huge bombs, producing first the Tallboy (6 tonnes) and then Grand Slam (10 tonnes) deep-penetration earth quake bombs. These should not be confused with the 5-tonne "blockbuster" bomb, which was a conventional blast bomb. Although there was still no aircraft cabaple of lifting these bombs to their optimal release altitude, these two bombs could still enter the earth at supersonic speed and penetrate to a depth of 20 metres before exploding. They were used on strategic German targets such as V2 rocket launch sites, submarine pens, and other reinforced structures, large civil constructions such as viaducts and bridges, as well as the German battleship Tirpitz. They were the forerunners of modern bunker-busting bombs.

After the War

Though he did not invent the concept, Wallis did much pioneering engineering work to make the swing-wing concept functional. However, despite very promising wind tunnel and model work, his designs were not adopted. His early "Wild Goose", designed in the late 1940s, was intended to use laminar flow, but when this was shown to be unworkable, he developed the swing-wing further for the "Swallow", designed in the mid-1950s, which could have been developed for either military or civil applications. Both Wild Goose and Swallow were demonstrated by large (30ft span) flying scale models without tailplanes; these trials were based at Predannack in Cornwall. Swallow was cancelled in the round of cuts following the Sandys Defence White Paper in 1957, and in an attempt to gain US finance to continue the work, details of the project were passed to the USA. No funds for the work were forthcoming from the USA, and Wallis's design ideas were passed over in the UK in favour of the BAC TSR-2 (on which one of Wallis's sons worked) and Concorde. Wallis was quite critical of both the TSR-2 and Concorde, stating that a swing-wing design would be more appropriate. In the mid-1960s, TSR-2 was ignominiously scrapped in favour of the American F-111 – which had swing wings based on Wallis's work which the Americans had received – though this order was also subsequently cancelled.

In the 1950s, Wallis developed an experimental rocket-propelled torpedo codename HEYDAY. It was powered by compressed air and hydrogen peroxide. Tests were conducted from Portland Breakwater in Dorset. The unusual shape was designed to maintain laminar flow over much of its length. The only surviving example is on display in Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower at Gosport.

In the 1960s, Wallis also proposed using large cargo submarines to transport oil and other goods, thus avoiding surface weather conditions. Moreover, Wallis's calculations indicated, the power requirements for an underwater vessel are lower than for a comparable conventional ship and they can be made to travel at a much higher speed.[3] He also proposed a novel hull structure which would have allowed greater depths to be reached, and the use of gas turbine engines in a submarine, using liquid oxygen.[4] In the end, nothing came of Wallis's submarine ideas.

During the 1960s and into his retirement, he developed ideas for an "all-speed" aircraft, capable of efficient flight at all speed ranges from subsonic to hypersonic.

The story described in The Dam Busters reflected the difficulties Wallis often faced in persuading those in authority or who controlled funding sources to support his ideas.

Following the terrible death toll of the aircrews involved in the Dambusters raid, he made a conscious effort never again to endanger the lives of his test pilots. His designs were extensively tested in model form, and consequently he became a pioneer in the remote control of aircraft.

Wallis became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945 and was knighted in 1968.


In April 1922, Wallis met his cousin-in-law, Molly Bloxam, at a family tea party. She was only 17 and he was 35, and her father forbade them from courting. However, he allowed Wallis to assist Molly with her mathematics courses by correspondence, and they wrote some 250 letters, enlivening them with fictional characters such as "Duke Delta X". The letters gradually became personal, and Wallis proposed marriage on her 20th birthday. They married on 23 April 1925, and were married for 54 years before his death in 1979.[5]

He lived with his family in Effingham, Surrey, from 1930 until his death.

His daughter Mary Eyre Wallis later married Harry Stopes-Roe, a son of Marie Stopes.[6]


Wallis appears as a fictionalized character in Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships, the authorised sequel to The Time Machine. He is portrayed as a British engineer in an alternate history, where the First World War does not end in 1918, and Wallis concentrates his energies on developing a machine for time travel. As a consequence, it is the Germans who develop the bouncing bomb.

In Scarlet Traces: The Great Game, he is said to have developed the Cavorite weapon used to win the war on Mars after the suicide of Cavor.


Statue of Barnes Wallis in Herne Bay, Kent, near the site of the bouncing bomb tests
  • There is a statue to Wallis in Herne Bay, Kent just a short distance from Reculver where his bouncing bomb was tested.
  • A Red Wheel heritage plaque commemorating Wallis's contribution as "Designer of airships, aeroplanes, the 'Bouncing Bomb' and swing-wing aircraft" was erected by the Transport Trust at Wallis' birthplace in Ripley, Derbyshire on 31 May 2009.
  • Another Red Wheel heritage plaque is located on New Cross Road in New Cross, London.
  • The Student Union Building on the University of Manchester North Campus is named in Wallis's honour; Wallis was awarded lifetime membership of the Students' Union in 1967.
  • Nottingham Trent University also has a building named after Wallis, on Goldsmith Street.
  • QinetiQ's site in Farnborough, Hampshire includes a building named in Wallis's honour, the former site of the Royal Aircraft Establishment.
  • There is a Barnes Wallis public house by the side of Howden railway station on the Hull to York Line. It is in view of the site of the airship hangars.
  • There is a Barnes Wallis Drive in Byfleet in Surrey on the approach to what was the Vickers/British Aerospace complex, within the former Brooklands race circuit. Additionally, there is a Barnes Wallis Close in Chickerell, Weymouth, which is within sight of the Fleet Lagoon bounded by Chesil Beach, where Wallis tested the bouncing bomb, and also a Barnes Road which is off Wallis Street in Bradford, West Yorkshire.
  • In golf, a "Barnes Wallis" is a shot that bounces over a water hazard.


  1. ^ London Gazette Issue 44735 published on the 13 December 1968. Page 1 of 82
  2. ^ Tatum Anderson "History lessons at the people's university," Guardian Weekly, 16 May 2007
  3. ^ Morpurgo, J.E.. Barnes Wallis, A Biography. 
  4. ^ Murray, Iain. Bouncing-Bomb Man: The Science of Sir Barnes Wallis. 
  5. ^ Shepherd, Jessica (2 May 2005). "Letters of love talk of maths". Birmingham Post. 
  6. ^ Pugh, Peter. Barnes Wallis Dambuster. p. 180. 


  • Morpurgo, J.E. (1972). Barnes Wallis, A Biography. London: Longman. ISBN 0-582-10360-6. 
  • Stopes-Roe, Mary (2005). Mathematics with Love: The Courtship Correspondence of Barnes Wallis, Inventor of the Bouncing Bomb. Macmillan. ISBN 1-4039-4498-9. 
  • Pugh, Peter (2005). Barnes Wallis Dambuster. Icon. ISBN 1-84046-685-5. 
  • Murray, Iain (2009). Bouncing-Bomb Man: the Science of Sir Barnes Wallis. Haynes. ISBN 978-1844255887. 

External links


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